When C.S. Lewis was sixteen, he had a strange vision. It wasn't a spiritual vision or a great artistic vision or some kind of prophecy. It was just a mental picture – a picture of a Faun, a mythical half-man half-goat, carrying an armload of packages and sheltering himself with an umbrella as he walked through a snowy wood. This strange but innocent image would stay with Lewis for decades until his chance encounter with some children who had been evacuated from London during World War II. Lewis was interested in the evacuees and what it might be like for children to be uprooted from their homes and sent into a strange, unknown world. (He himself had been sent away to several boarding schools as a child and an adolescent, and his memories of them were unpleasant.)
Lewis was already an experienced and prolific writer who had published numerous books, including a science fiction trilogy, a scholarly book about medieval allegory, a book of poetry, and some works on religion and faith. He decided to try writing a book for children, using his meeting with the evacuees and the picture of the Faun. The writing was difficult at first, but eventually he started to see some other pictures that came into the story. Lewis said the Christ-like lion, Aslan, "came bounding in" and the pages started to fly by. And The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was born!
After he finished writing, Lewis excitedly read his new book aloud to his friend and fellow author J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien were members of a small, informal literary club at Oxford called The Inklings, which met to discuss members' work-in-progress and other literature-related topics. In the past, Tolkien had read his works, including parts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, to Lewis and the other Inklings, who gave him useful feedback and support. Lewis expected Tolkien to provide the same kind of encouragement and constructive criticism. But, as Lewis's biographer George Sayer records, Tolkien thought The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was terrible. Tolkien argued that witches and Santa Claus and talking animals and figures from Greek mythology didn't belong in the same story – that no book should have so many different types of characters jumbled together. Luckily for us, some of Lewis's other friends loved the book, and so he published it in 1950, two years after writing it.
After finishing the first book, Lewis discovered that new stories were unfolding in his mind to explain some of the strange aspects of this imaginary country called Narnia, and he started work on a sequel. Eventually The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was just the first of the seven Chronicles of Narnia. As the books progressed, they continued to present Lewis's Christian faith and morality in an allegorical form to child readers. Each book drew on a combination of Lewis's religious enthusiasm (he had experienced a powerful re-conversion to Christianity) and his academic background (he was a Fellow at Oxford University specializing in Medieval and Renaissance literature and philology). Although The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was not an immediate bestseller, it slowly and steadily became popular on the cutting edge of a new literary movement in favor of fantasy stories for children.
Although it is primarily directed at child readers, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a sophisticated and captivating book that has enjoyed a long afterlife and extensive popularity worldwide. Over the last 60 years, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has been adapted as a major motion picture, an animated TV movie, a live-action TV serial, and a play. The book has become a cultural phenomenon and the characters have become household names. Today it would be surprising, if not impossible, to find a bookstore that didn't carry The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the other Chronicles of Narnia. C.S. Lewis's work has also been the object of interest by literary scholars and professional critics, and the Narnia books are sure to live on, both as the beloved reading of children and adults, and as essential texts in the history of fantasy literature.
As much as we love The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we can see why you might have trouble caring about it. After all, 21st-century life isn't exactly full of Dryads and Naiads and Fauns frolicking and feasting in the summer woods. At least, ours isn't…if yours is, though, please write in and share. For the rest of us, things seem a bit grimmer and darker today than they did to C.S. Lewis in 1949, when he was writing the first draft of this book. By contrast, in today's children's fantasy books, not every injustice is punished, and not all the good people live happily ever after. Some of them die (thanks, J.K. Rowling!), because that's the reality we live in. School shootings, gang violence, child abuse…it seems like we're a thousand miles away from the fantasy of complete and total justice in Narnia.
What we do know about in our world, however, is betrayal. All around us, among our friends and family, at school, at work, and in the media we hear about people who turn their backs on their loved ones and closest companions. About spouses who cheat. About employees who steal from their employers. About teenagers who bully their classmates. About friends who tell lies about other friends to make themselves look better. It goes on and on...we're sure you can think of some examples from your own life right away. That's where we can connect with Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we see a great betrayal. Not only that, but we explore the tiny details that lead over time to that betrayal. We also see what redemption can look like – the kind of sacrifice and the type of forgiveness necessary to recover from deceit and disloyalty.
After all, Edmund doesn't turn his back on his brother and sisters just because he thinks it would be neat to do so. We learn that he's been attending a pretty bad school, which has encouraged some of his natural tendency to be a bully. He's started to enjoy bossing and tormenting his younger sister, he talks back to his older sister, and he resents his older brother. He starts to imagine that other people are ignoring him or laughing at him behind his back when they're not. Then he starts telling lies in order to make himself look good and Lucy look bad in the eyes of Peter and Susan. When the lies don't work out, Edmund sulks and gets nastier. When he starts to realize that he's on the wrong side of things, he blames his brother for alienating him. Then, when he starts to suspect that he might have to admit he is wrong and take his punishment, he finally decides to cast his lot in with the baddies and betray his family to the most evil person he can find, telling himself the whole time that the Witch is really not that evil. Still, he knows she is.
The point is, Edmund goes bad very slowly. It starts with the influences of his peers, and then it translates into little rude things he says, and then it turns into lies, and then he resents the people he lies to, and eventually he's standing in front of an evil tyrant Witch providing the location and strategy of his own family members so that they can be annihilated. Except for the evil tyrant Witch part, this is sounding kind of familiar, isn't it? Most of us know about the slippery slope from rude to resentful to doing something we regret.
But what's fascinating and comforting about Narnia is that, although Edmund goes bad slowly, he's able to turn his life around very quickly. Of course, he doesn't do it alone. He has the help of Aslan and the unconditional love and support of his brother and sisters. Once he wants to shake off his betrayal and come back to the right side, though, everyone is ready to welcome him with open arms. We're not saying it's easy. In fact, he almost dies. The point is, anyone can change, no matter how far they've gone. Everyone can be redeemed. At least, that's the message of this book – and we think it's something to care about.